Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, ‘Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, wearing sackcloth.’
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.
But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here!’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon.
We can find meaning, despite the complexity, as we continue to wrestle with this book. It is important to listen to what God might be saying through this passage which ends with the description of the second of the three woes. To understand we need to recognise the deep, rich seam that John is mining for the imagery. Biblical allusions are tumbling over each other. To begin to make sense of this confusing and disturbing picture we need to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture – a Reformed model for theology.
Part of the difficulty in understanding this material is the numbers – I suggest we worry less about them and take both the numbers and the rest of the passage symbolically. Look instead at the images being held together and see which other passages they remind you about. The lamps call to mind the churches in the seven letters, but here John seems to be showing that part of the Church facing persecution. Some of the measured-out Church will be protected; the rest is at risk. In the Law, two witnesses are needed to provide trustworthy testimony. In Zechariah 4, olive trees (one each side of a lampstand with seven lamps) provide plentiful oil to keep the lamps alight, and for anointing (also associated with the Spirit). In Jeremiah 5, fire pouring out from the mouth (figuratively not literally!) conveys authority. The two witnesses traditionally are Elijah, who prevented rain falling, and Moses, who brought plagues to the earth. What other images here appear elsewhere in the Bible? Do they help you to piece together what this passage might mean?
There is too much for us to uncover it all here, but do take time to dig deeper, and, like Jacob, wrestle with God until you receive a blessing.
If I were to sum up what I’ve found here, it would be: hard times will come to the Church, but good will overcome, so we need not approach the future fearfully!
Holy God, You have revealed so much of Yourself through Scripture and through Jesus, Your Son and our Lord. Deepen our faith that You hold all things under your power, and that even when hardship and pain seem to have reign, let us know deep in our hearts that You and You alone have ultimate authority, and that you will in the end show us all that Your love wins. Amen.